Foreground vs background music

What is the difference between foreground music and background music?

Foreground music: when people stop talking, the music begins.

Background music: when the music stops, the people stop talking.

“Play the familiar in an unfamiliar way,” I would tell myself when playing background music. It shouldn’t be so intrusive that people stop talking.

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The actual playing time was less than an hour, but it took me four hours the previous day to play through and select the music I thought appropriate for the Rotary Club charity gala dinner. My sight reading ability has improved since those early days as hotel pianist in London. It’s still necessary to go through my music to ensure enough variety.

Meanwhile, Robert Bekkers did not have to select any sheet music. It was all in his head.

Robert Bekkers on the way to a gig, photo credit: Peter Lie
Robert Bekkers on the way to a gig, photo credit: Peter Lie

What is the difference between foreground music and background music?

Foreground music: when people stop talking, the music begins.

Background music: when the music stops, the people stop talking.

My choice of music is defined by the familiarity index. “Play the familiar in an unfamiliar way,” I would tell myself when playing background music. It shouldn’t be so intrusive that people stop talking. I take a selection of flowing music from Einaudi and film music, intermingled with jazz standards and my own favourites. I consider myself successful if people continue talking. My background music is intended to fill gaps in conversation and fuel the interaction between people.

“Don’t pay attention to me please.” That’s the message I want to broadcast as I happily sight read the music and make transitions to avoid silent gaps. I don’t want people to listen. I just want to reassure them that they are not alone.

When Robert began to play, however, I noticed that a few people stopped talking. It was Albeniz. They recognised it. On his last tune, the Romance that every beginning guitar player aspires to play, I received a request. “Has he got this on CD? I’d love to buy it.”

Robert Bekkers at the Rotary Club Charity Gala Dinner, photo credit: Peter Lie
Robert Bekkers at the Rotary Club Charity Gala Dinner, photo credit: Peter Lie

Moral of the story:

When you play foreground music as background, people will stop talking and start listening.

Art and music at Artonivo in Bruges, Belgium

On Friday 26th February 2010, Robert Bekkers and I officially participated as artists in a new exhibition. It was the result of our week of “Creative Encounters in Paleochora, Crete” in August 2009. The exhibition covers the interdisciplinary projects of 2007, 2008, and 2009 spearheaded by the owner of the Artonivo Gallery. GAEA AEOLUS or AARDE WIND or EARTH WIND exhibition runs daily from 15:00 to 18:00 in Artonivo art centre in central Brugge (Bruges), Belgium until 5th April 2010.

There is a first time for everything. As musicians, we give concerts (foreground music) or play background music. Rarely do we get a chance to play foreground music and linger on (without being there) for two months.

On Friday 26th February 2010, Robert Bekkers and I officially participated as artists in a new exhibition. It was the result of our week of “Creative Encounters in Paleochora, Crete” in August 2009. The exhibition covers the interdisciplinary projects of 2007, 2008, and 2009 spearheaded by the owner of the Artonivo Gallery.

Opening night at Artonivo in Brugge, Belgium, photo credit Dorit Drori
Opening night at Artonivo in Brugge, Belgium, photo credit Dorit Drori

I had gone to many private viewings in London and Amsterdam as a spectator but never as a participant. That Robert Bekkers and I would have something to exhibit was a completely new experience for us. As precaution, I had suggested a concert — something we knew well, in case we had nothing worthy to exhibit.

An electric piano made a live performance possible. However, memories of playing on an electric piano in Capetown’s Victoria & Alfred amphitheatre in South Africa warned us against trying anything too fancy.

I began with a piece for violin and cello. It seemed appropriate to play “Encounter” with the left hand as cello and right hand as violin, for the project was called “14th Levka Ori Creative Encounters in Crete.” I explained the programmatic aspect of my composition about a conversation between two strangers.

I will write about our improvisation in another blog. It deserves a separate blog. We had never performed an improvisation in public until then. But that’s how we met, or rather, how Robert and I were supposed to have interacted — in an improvisation ensemble in Amsterdam in Spring 2001. Except, it didn’t happen. I sat in the audience instead. That’s definitely another story.

We ended the short concert with Vivaldi’s WINTER for it conjures up the wind and the elements.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo play Vivaldi's Winter
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo play Vivaldi's Winter from Four Seasons, photo credit: Dorit Drori

So happy I was to see three familiar faces from the Netherlands. They had come to support us — or perhaps out of curiosity. What were musicians doing in an art gallery? What were Netherlands-based musicians doing in Belgium?

Over champagne and sandwiches we chatted with the guests. We got to know the other artists who had gone to Crete before us. Two sisters Ruthi Dekel and Dorit Drori had gone in 2008 whose theme was Archaelogy of the Imagination. I am grateful for Dorit’s photos displayed here.

GAEA AEOLUS or AARDE WIND or EARTH WIND exhibition runs daily from 15:00 to 18:00 in Artonivo art centre in central Brugge (Bruges), Belgium until 5th April 2010.

Brautigam premieres new piano concerto of Jacob TV

Jacob TV’s music is definitely tonal, if not ultra tonal. There are minimalistic elements and even neoromantic. But these characteristics are not what made the piano concerto no. 2 unique. Famous for his interpretation of the complete sonata cycles of Mozart and Beethoven on fortepiano and a sought-after soloist for many orchestras, Brautigam had the kind of stage presence to whom any composer would gladly dedicate a piano concerto. Jacob ter Veldhuis wrote his “Sky Falling” concerto while the financial crisis was unfolding around the world. Not quite one and a half years later, hope and optimism are what we need more than anything.

On 5th March 2010, we missed the pre-concert talk due to an unexpected hiccup but fortunately arrived in time for a special programme of Friday at the Vredenburg. As I write this, I’m delighted to discover that the entire concert can be heard online. After the Dutch news, you’ll hear a string quartet and an interview before the concert begins.

What drew us to brave the rain and queue in the cold outdoors for our tickets on this busy, dark wintry (not quite spring) night was the new piano concerto of Jacob ter Veldhuis. I first saw his “Body of Your Dreams” performed at a music festival in Italy. This virtuoso piece was very exciting to watch and has become popular with pianists as a contemporary choice in their final exam recitals.

The evening concert began with a large male acapella choir singing Ton de Leeuw’s Cloudy Forms. de Leeuw (1926 – 1996) is famous in the Netherlands for his definitive book on 20th century music, required reading at Dutch conservatories. After this, the choir continued to more tonal works of another Dutch composer Alphons Diepenbrock (1862 – 1921). By now, I was anxious to hear the sound of piano and orchestra.

When Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam walked on stage, it felt as though a maestro had arrived. His uncut, loose, and not quite straight or curly hair in vivid white was unmissable. Famous for his interpretation of the complete sonata cycles of Mozart and Beethoven on fortepiano and a sought-after soloist for many orchestras, Brautigam had the kind of stage presence to whom any composer would gladly dedicate a piano concerto. Despite this reassurance, I was still full of curiosity and anticipation.

Ronald Brautigam, photo credit: Marco Borggeve
Ronald Brautigam, photo credit: Marco Borggeve

Jacob ter Veldhuis, also known as Jacob TV for short and especially in the USA, called his second piano concerto “Sky Falling” or rather “The Sky isn’t Falling” as a response to the credit crunch around the time of its commission in autumn 2008.

[I’ve now reached that part of the radio programme where the stage is being refitted for a grand piano, conductor podium, and the Radio Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra. I am overjoyed that I can listen online as I write this.]

The piano began with a crisp motif quickly joined by the winds. The piano was, at times, like water trickling on stones in a stream. It was constant throughout the 17 minute one movement piece, except for a moment that I’ll never forget. The orchestra stopped (somewhere around bar 45 or 48 as I learned later from viewing the score). It felt like a comma — a breathing point. But the piano did not stop there. It continued in an obvious solo. A few bars later, when you can barely recognise it, the four contrabasses enter and support the now recognisable piano solo. Then the two marimbas and timpani join in. It was beautiful. I would fast forward just to hear that section again. Rewind and hear it again.

Jacob TV’s music is definitely tonal, if not ultra tonal. There are minimalistic elements and even neoromantic. But these characteristics are not what made the piano concerto no. 2 unique. Somewhere in my mind, as I sat bewitched by the music, I uttered what I would eventually write “…a feeling of hope and optimism that we need today.” That’s how I felt when I heard it live and how I feel as I listen online now.

How does one write music that gives you hope? It’s not the same as music that makes you jolly and happy. It’s not the same as an elegy that makes you nostalgic or sentimental. You don’t linger or dwell on the past but look forward to the future.

Jacob ter Veldhuis wrote his “Sky Falling” concerto while the financial crisis was unfolding around the world.

Not quite one and a half years later, hope and optimism are what we need more than anything.

Jacob ter Veldhuis (Jacob TV), photo credit: Guido Benschop
Jacob ter Veldhuis (Jacob TV), photo credit: Guido Benschop

Background information

When I learned that Jacob ter Veldhuis had written a new piano concerto for another Dutch maestro, Ronald Brautigam, to be premiered in Utrecht, I just had to see it. I had seen Brautigam interpret Beethoven’s piano sonatas on fortepiano in the Vredenburg (the biggest concert hall in Utrecht) before it shut down for renovation. The red box (as we call it) of the temporary concert hall of Vredenburg has nearly become permanent as we local residents wait for the new Music Palace whose end is not yet in sight.

Jacob ter Veldhuis had coached me on my Elegy when he was composer-in-residence at Utrecht Conservatory (2007-2008). On the first day, he introduced himself, beginning with “I am a full time composer.” Somehow those words inspired me so greatly that I wanted to hear his works and eventually play them.